This is the final post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post is drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck.
Blood, saliva, mucus, pus, urine, and feces contaminate my gloved hands on a regular basis. Disgust triggers and death reminders are a daily part of my life as a pediatric interventional radiologist. Like most health care workers, I have learned to regulate disgust in order to care for patients. So, while oozing bodies may be no less disgusting to us now than prior to our training, maintaining a focus on healing enables us to overcome revulsion and provide treatment despite contact with offensive material.
Beck begins the last chapter of Unclean with a description of Piss Christ in which photographer Andres Serrano submerged the iconic image of Jesus on the cross under the same offensive blood and urine in which I daily immerse my own hands. Most Christians responded to Piss Christ with self righteous disgust, revulsion, and anger. However, others found it possible to interpret the piece as an eye-opening theological commentary on the scandal of the incarnation.
What leads to such opposite responses? According to Beck, whether Christians find the connection between Christ and bodily fluids offensive or inspiring depends on what he calls incarnational ambivalence. This embarrassment at the interpenetration of divine and human is not new. Beck traces its roots to the late 3rd century when Arius denied the divinity of Christ. According to Beck, the Arian heresy was not so much an attempt to denigrate Jesus, as it was intended to preserve the honor and perfection of God. The issue was over God’s character.
Ironically, Arius, the heretic, took a theologically conservative approach emphasizing the holiness and transcendency of God. Athanasius, the orthodox, made a theologically liberal move rejecting a self-contained, sterile God for a God of love and relationship which presupposes need. Ambivalence toward our own neediness, vulnerability, and dependency still causes many Christians to recoil at the thought of God in need.
Not only do we deny neediness in ourselves and God, we exhibit a particular form of sinful conceit in a vain attempt to overcome need. As Beck writes, “Specifically, we posit a self-contained God, a God that needs nothing. And with this as the Imago Dei, we then seek to become like this God, self-contained and self-sufficient, needing nothing to sustain ourselves. In short, a denial of the Incarnation is an attempt to flee from our need and, as we will see, this undermines our capacity to love" (pg. 170).
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” is quoted twice in Matthew. Beck describes the first instance in Matthew 9 as an attack on notions of purity which would otherwise lead to exclusion from table fellowship. He notes that the second occurrence in Matthew 12 goes beyond fellowship and hospitality to focus on human need and vulnerability. This is juxtaposed against the divine command to observe the Sabbath.
The examples in Matthew 12 of picking grain for food, healing a lame hand, and pulling an animal out of a ditch all on the Sabbath contrast need and sacrifice. These examples present in stark relief the potential conflict between a legalistic Seventh-day sacrifice of following divine command and the more radical and Christ like mercy of recognizing and meeting human need. It seems Jesus addressed the Pharisees this way because they felt rich, wealthy, and in need of nothing and were therefore blinded to other’s needs. They needed salve to help them see how self-sufficiency makes us unloving.
If this was true for the Pharisee’s two millennia ago, our modern heights of technologically-advanced death repression have created an even more pernicious denial of our own vulnerability and need. Our fear of death must be cured for “the reason we observed in Matthew 12: honestly embracing need is critical for a life of mercy" (pg. 176). You see, for those of us who have been ‘privileged’ to never experience poverty, racial discrimination, same sex attraction, or gender inequality, it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for us to empathize and understand why poor people don’t just ‘get jobs,’ why black people shake their heads at ‘all lives matter,’ why LGBT+ people can’t choose to ‘pray away the gay,’ and why women won’t find ultimate fulfillment in their supportive ‘complementarian' roles.
But, it is not enough to simply recognize our own need in order to understand the needs of others. We must recognize that needs are not equally distributed. Some bodies are exposed to greater risk of injury, harm, and death than others. As Ta-Nahisi Coates writes to his son in Between the World and Me, “[Y]ou are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country” (pg. 137) . This fragility is nothing intrinsic to the body of a black teenager. Rather, the fragility is imposed by uneven costs for inevitable mistakes, diminished access to resources, and a general sense of not belonging. Stating that black lives matter is a way of calling attention to disparity. Making black lives matter requires the healing demonstration to black teenagers that we need them. They belong. They are loved.
As Beck writes on his blog, “In short, there is a connection between love and vulnerability. This is why the kingdom of God is always found among "the least of these." The kingdom is found among those whose bodies are more fragile not because these bodies are more virtuous, holy or saintly. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.”
“No, the kingdom of God is found among those whose bodies are more fragile because, as Coates writes, vulnerability brings us closer to the meaning of life which, for Christians, means closer to the meaning of love.”
Disgust on the other hand makes love impossible. In the pages of Unclean, Beck mentors us through an internship in the subtleties of disgust and the ways it has infected the church. We have seen that disgust and the attributions of contamination affect how we reason about morality, experience grace, and relate to the holy. Disgust also guards the boundaries of our communities acting in opposition to hospitality. Finally, disgust has been implicated in a denial of our neediness and vulnerability insulating us from human existence and blinding us to the needs of others.
“So, what are we to do about disgust psychology in the life of the church?" (pg. 183).
To answer that question, we must revisit what was for me one of the most insightful revelations in Unclean: the differences in moral reasoning between liberals and conservatives. In chapter 4, Divinity and Dumbfounding, Beck references the work of Haidt and Graham who identify five categories of moral foundations: 1. Harm/Care, 2. Fairness/Reciprocity, 3. Ingroup/Loyalty, 4. Authority/Respect, and 5. Purity/Sanctity. They found that those of us who are liberal/progressive tend to appeal to the first two horizontally human-focused foundations to determine morality whereas those of us who are conservative/traditional employ all five foundations to make moral judgments, often favoring the more vertically divine-oriented categories at the end of the list.
In retrospect, I can trace my own evolution from conservative to progressive through these categories. My first two decades in the pure remnant of Adventism had a heavenward focus with the ingroup assurance that we had the truth based on the authority of scripture and Ellen White. “God is love” described for me just one of God’s literal attributes which also included holiness, justice, and wrath. My third decade in Adventism brought a horizontal focus on community that tempered my heavenward idealism with the reality of the lives around me. “God is love” took on John’s qualification “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Then in my fourth Adventist decade I have become acutely aware of the harm our community has caused in unfairly excluding those deemed unfit, heretical, and impure. Some would say the problem is that I turned my gaze downward off of Jesus. But, that same Jesus turned his own gaze downward saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
I now wonder whether I will even experience a fifth decade of Adventism. “God is love” now seems less descriptive and more definitional or even redundant. After reading Beck’s book, I better understand why fundamentalist Christians and atheists alike maintain that my transition into liberalism is a slippery slope into unbelief. In focusing horizontally on fellow humans, liberal Christianity merges seamlessly with humanism. I have all but eliminated vertical notions of purity and holiness which separate the world into clean and unclean.
The benefits of this move are considerable. I have ceased to judge the unclean as contemptuous and worthy of exclusion. As a result, patriarchy, witch hunts, and exclusion have been renounced. Removing a transcendent dimension from faith has certainly helped eliminate disgust and purity seeking so that love can flourish. But is there a cost?
Beck assures us there is a cost and his diagnosis hits home hard. The immanent (as opposed to transcendent) church he says, “may struggle with a sense of “flatness” (pg. 191). I do. Church without a sacred dimension feels irrelevant. It does. The loss of the transcendent calls the existence of the church as a church into question. “Why be “religious” if liberal humanism is enough?" (pg. 191).
If you come up with a good answer, let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll share my tentative thoughts. I find it ironic that science denying faith is based on the same impulses which inspired us to evolve beyond self absorption so that we are now a small part of the vast universe becoming aware of itself. By faithfully traveling our various religious journeys, we learn to deny, control, accept, and finally celebrate our animal nature. Traveling the length of the religious paths our forebears blazed without stopping to colonize or leaving prematurely to criticize is a time tested way to become fully human without being controlled by or denigrating our evolved bodies. If this is so, then humane, loving communities are made possible after religion.
Jesus started with communities centered around the synagogue and the law and went on to create living communities centered around caring for the most vulnerable in society. He carved space out of the Roman Empire for healing and protection of the most fragile bodies. Moving through the Judean countryside which was occupied by both religious and political oppressors, he announced the present reality of the Kingdom of God—A kin-dom where the most oppressed and marginalized are welcomed and cared for.
How can we go about sustaining these same communities? Beck recommends Jesus’s last supper. The Eucharist incorporates every facet of disgust from core disgust at what we eat, to moral disgust over how we are purified, to social disgust from the radically inclusive call to “wait on each other,” and even to mortal disgust at the broken body and blood of Jesus. Eating the sacraments should shock us with the scandal of a God who needs and bleeds. After all, which is more scandalous—an image of God awash in blood and urine on the outside or Godself coated with blood and filling up with urine on the inside?
The Eucharist serves many roles. In recognizing God as a peace loving humanist, we find our striving for the divine only sends us back into the world. This process can help regulate our inherent disgust, keep our worship grounded in the gritty, oozy realities of the human body and teach us to love well. If practiced with intentionality, the Eucharist has the potential to convert even the church.
In some hospitals the doctor’s dining area is separate from the cafeteria for other staff, patients, and families. Thankfully, the hospital where I work has just one cafeteria for all of us. We eat together. The important symbolism of this shared experience should not be underestimated. Like the shared Eucharist it demonstrates that we won’t hide or deny our shared needs; in our variety of roles we are united in caring for our patients; and, we don’t exclude based on hierarchy.
Completely erasing disgust is an idealistic impossibility and may even be undesirable. And yet, because there is no hiding from need in the hospital, in that sacred space I have experienced disgust yielding to compassion and healing. Likewise, when we open our eyes to the way the Eucharist exposes our own need, calls us to serve others, makes marginalized lives matter, and inspires us to heal the inequality in society, perhaps our religious disgust will also give way to love.
Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine. He writes from the Kansas City area where he lives with his wife and three children.
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